Writing an Assignment Example, which isn’t, which kind of is, but isn’t really…

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Trump just dropped out of the US presidential race! Are you serious?!

Well, no, I’m not, but it was the best example of an attention-grabber I could think of at the moment.

The importance of attracting and maintaining a reader’s attention when you’re writing online is a fairly standard point to make, but I thought it was worth mentioning here given students can become very accustomed to essay-writing and its expectations of a rigid structure and formal word choice. Blogs are generally much more ‘accessible’ than scholarship – and only in part through the use of more informal (but still clear and articulate) language. On the other hand, constructing scholarly blog posts requires a balance between this accessibility and complexity that is often difficult to master (Alexander 2016, p. 3).

When I first considered writing an ‘example blog post’ for students, I naturally first thought that I’d engage with a topic related to the unit’s content. However, I’m always concerned that something I make will turn into a ‘template’ that gets followed by the majority. Further to this, I can’t really ‘teach’ people how to do this kind of thing anyway…

An emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ by making and sharing media, and then giving/receiving feedback via peer review, can make teacher examples risky. As Jonathan Kirby highlights in his discussion of contemporary pedagogical approaches:

an overarching example can be counterproductive to the learning process and might even stifle initiative and creativity (Kirby 2016, p. 17).

I’ve seen this happen before, hence the approach I’m taking here seeks to highlight some general elements of what can make a good blog that demonstrates both critical thinking and creative application, not replicate what students will be doing.

There are far too many aspects of blogging for me to cover everything in detail, but I’ll mention a few through the useful (but not essential) strategy of dot points:

  • Form short paragraphs to build an argument
  • Use italics (not bold) for occasional emphasis
  • Proofread carefully to eliminate errors
  • Integrate vibrant media content

I’ve covered the use of both scholarly and creative material in my ‘Using Source Material’ podcast, so I don’t want to touch on that here, but the integration of other media content deserves a little more consideration. There are countless ways in which this could be done, and the key advice I want to emphasise here is that the nature and positioning of media content should make sense within the context of the overall post (Thompson 2008, pp. 9-10).

Bringing in extra content is valuable for reasons of aesthetics and interactivity, but also for enabling one to cover more subject matter than is possible within a relatively small word count. Videos in embedded tweets offer a lot of scope to play around creatively and analytically, as do embedded podcasts. I don’t have space to write about the latter much here, so I’ve embedded one below to follow up on this:

 

 

Teamwork.jpg
Teamwork by Campus of Excellence (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Experimenting with the different ways media content can be used together to explore, investigate, and examine is the best – and only – way to really learn what those different ways are. Your audience will help, but you have to (to paraphrase Tom Cruise) help them help you by making and sharing first!

And lastly, always try to bring your blogs ‘full circle’ where possible – particularly if it helps reinforce a key point you made at the beginning, which has been backed up all the way through. In the case of this blog, that didn’t really happen, but given how I started I’m afraid I have to come back to Trump. Sorry.

Make blogging great again!!

Donald Trump.jpg
Donald Trump in Ottumwa, Iowa by Evan Guest (CC BY 2.0)

Oh, I just made myself feel sick…

 

References

Alexander, D 2016, ‘A made up source to show how a point can be paraphrased’, Journal of Still Use Specific Page Numbers When Paraphrasing, vol. 7. No. 2, pp. 1-15.

Kirby, J 2008, ‘Quotations are useful when something is uniquely/significantly worded’, The collection of ‘Perfect Your Referencing!’ and other invented essays, Deakin University Press, Wakanda City, pp. 15-27.

Thompson, A 2015, A Book Revealing that You Can Always Go Beyond the Bare Minimum, Embrace Your Potential Press, Melbourne.

Don’t Trust the Teacher!: Advice for/by Students

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Creepy
Self-portrait by Adam Brown, 22 January 2016. Creepy.

I wrote in an earlier blog called ‘Who’s Learning From Whom?‘ about my dismay over the years that the views and ideas of students are often not given the weight they deserve by their peers. That post shared a video with Catherine Shelley, a recent Deakin University graduate now working as an Event Producer, which signified the next stage of my quest to emphasise the importance of student contributions to unit content. I’ve included students in segments of my teaching videos in some form or another since I began making them in 2013, although this gets increasingly difficult when I teach fewer seminars directly and I can’t build enough of a rapport to get many students confidently standing in front of my camcorder. However, the ‘trust issue’ alluded to in the title of this blog takes on a different form than this…

Sometimes the last people students will listen to are teachers. I’m not actually being cynical or negative in saying this (you might not believe me, but that probably underlines my point even more, hashtag #lol). I’m also not advocating the mass dismissal of things that teachers have to say… obviously. The truth is though that if students did constantly heed teacher advice withough question, then everyone would show up to every seminar, read every reading set, and always start assignments long before the deadline. However, these aren’t the kind of things that I’m concerned about in this post. My key point here is that there is some advice that is best delivered to students by students.

Whether it’s partly because of an unconscious perception by some that ‘well, the teacher gets paid to say that’ (technically, that’s actually true on one level), or it’s because students just find other students more relatable (no matter how many T-Shirts I wear), when they are given a genuine and engaging opportunity to listen to each other, students trust students. Plain and simple. And so my latest podcast and two videos embedded below give a lot of space to student voices, because having students tell their peers what works and what doesn’t is often the best way to communicate the importance of being active online and collaborating with their peers.

As if to emphasise the importance of students giving advice to students even more, within a few hours of uploading the above podcast – and while I was writing this blog – a student had created and shared a follow-up podcast of her own:

The other two resources I made with the generous assistance of students contribute to the Talking Digital Media video playlist I’ve been developing over the past few years. I’ve never felt compelled to justify myself as not elitist, but I imagine the early stages of this playlist, which mostly incorporated guest lectures or interviews with other academics and industry practitioners, probably didn’t give the impression of something that was ‘open’ to student involvement. In early 2016, I filmed conversations with current PhD students on areas they knew more about than me, and not long afterwards it seemed clear that undergraduate students were the best people to speak to regarding the crucial themes of student agency, showing initiative, getting experience, and working together online. I look forward to relying on students more often in future, as it should never be students who rely solely on me…

The below video is also available as a podcast here.

The below video is available as a podcast here.

Both of these videos came from chance moments when something that I was told in conversation made me instantly think other students have to hear this! And what I will see transpire in future weeks is students giving more advice to each other as they tweet, peer review blogs, and no doubt do other things that I never expected. Such is the nature of teaching… if you still trust me enough to believe that.

Thanks to everyone who helped out with the above content.

 

Learning by Doing: Getting Practical with Digital Media

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The types of teaching videos I’ve put together have changed over time. In 2013, I began making what I called ‘meLectures‘, which comprised weekly reflections on unit content via talking head footage, conversations 20130923_173307.jpgwith various people, and the more important/influential/entertaining footage of my maltese-shitzu companion Tiffany. In 2015, I started taking out my guest ‘interviews’ to upload them separately in a Talking Digital Media playlist. These videos have seen me chat with other academics, industry practitioners, postgraduate students, and very shortly, undergraduate students. They are premised on the twin notions that all perspectives are valid and multiple perspectives are always better than one (which is usually what is offered in a traditional lecture setting). A related idea behind these videos is that when teaching such a diverse range of topics underneath the broad umbrella of ‘digital media’, I can never be anything approaching an expert. Besides, any claims of ‘expert’ status by anybody working in the online world are rightly looked upon with skepticism and suspicion.

In early 2016, my meLectures were replaced entirely by three playlists: the ongoing list of Talking Digital Media conversations, short Digital Media Snapshot reflections on unit topics and assessment, and a series of Getting Practical with Digital Media videos. This last playlist sought to offer broad advice for students to keep in mind when setting up profiles on different platforms or to highlight certain conventions to bear in mind when making media. I do not teach students how to do things – not least of all because, given the accessible and user-friendly nature of contemporary online media, I don’t need to. A key benefit of this playlist is that I can re-use these brief videos in future units for students who may not have completed the unit they were initially designed for in order to help get those new students up to speed and surge ahead with their own media-making.

A common thread woven throughout the Getting Practical with Digital Media playlist is that people learn how to use digital media by using it. Learning by making and doing is fundamental and these videos are designed to help propel students into this process. For instance, my ‘Area 1: Foundation Land‘ videos cover the need to think carefully and strategically about one’s identity when constructing online profiles, the value of using Twitter in a teaching and learning context, and the crucial topic of Creative Commons licensed material (which very few students have any awareness of when I first meet them). This first group of videos have been embedded into the prezi linked below:

Area 1 Prezi

The ‘Area 2: Exploration World‘ prezi brings together videos that draw attention to some key elements to consider when starting up a blog, including the hyperlinking and embedding of multimedia content, among other things. The brevity of some of these videos reveals just how straightforward some processes – even when they are crucially important ones – actually can be…

Area 2 Prezi.png

The last ‘Area 3: Advanced Star‘ videos focus on advice for making videos, which is invariably the most nerve-wracking experience for students who have never engaged in such an activity before. Nonetheless, video-making is an increasingly central part of many, many industries, and while it can be a time and effort-intensive exercise, it is also one of the most rewarding things that anyone can ever do in terms of media production.

Area 3 Prezi.png

There is roughtly one hour of footage in total across the thirteen videos embedded here, and asking people in a time and attention-poor society to sit and watch a video even for an average of 5 minutes is a big ask. While I hope that students do set aside the time to view them (the stats so far have been promising at least), the main point is that watching these videos should inspire many more hours of microblogging, blogging, and vlogging by others. My videos might provide a small nudge toward this, but as one student’s comment on my last Getting Practical video noted, getting practical oneself is the crux:

Great advice, Adam! Learning so much from just doing:)

How I poisoned a student and got away with it: The Story of @FauxTheMan

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A lot of my teaching focuses on encouraging students to think about – and practice – how to use social media actively, strategically, and effectively. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different strategies to help enable this. In 2014, I introduced a character students themselves came to call ‘Anti-Adam’, whose cynical appearances on camera discouraged the ‘real me’ from having any hope that students would leave behind their passive ways and participate in online discussions, debates, and creative media-making.

Anti-Adam 2.png
Anti-Adam provides one last rant in the final meLecture of 2014.

The playfulness with my identity(s) was well received, though it’s impossible to say just how much of an impact this strategy had on tempting students to move out of their comfort zones. Anti-Adam essentially took on an infrequent ‘cameo role’ and there wasn’t really any way that his two-dimensional persona could be interacted with. I also needed to carefully balance how much ‘negativity’ I included so as to not disillusion people further and produce the opposite effect than what was intended. When refreshing my learning materials this year, I was even more intent on enticing – provoking – greater and better online participation, so I tried something else…

FauxTheMan
Twitter profile of @FauxTheMan

FauxTheMan was born on 13 March 2016, when I summarily  took over my partner’s unused Twitter account (because I didn’t want to have to get another bloody email address) and created a sixth profile for myself, transforming a then blank persona into an only slightly less blank persona. Faux sported no profile picture (at least for a few months), had included a somewhat vague bio that left everything to the imagination, and followed Hulk Hogan – and only Hulk Hogan bro! His role in the first several weeks was to contribute sporadic tweets to the unit hashtag that left much to be desired from a teacher’s perspective – and no doubt in the eyes of his peers as well. On a few occasions, Faux crossed the line from being uninterested and disengaged to being rude and offensive to me (that is, the teacher me). To get a better sense of what transpired, the following 5 minute clip (3:20-7:58) from the below video offers a summary of Faux’s early days, when the content of the unit focused on the issue of online identity:

Before creating Faux, I had been tossing the idea of a fake student account around in my head for a while, but the actual process was as much spontaneous as it was planned. As with so many other things when being creative with digital media, Faux organically grew in response to the reactions of students. I had assumed that once he had helped communicate the message of what not to do on Twitter, Faux’s ‘presence’ in the unit would dissipate as the trimester moved forward. But this was not to be the case, as Faux took on more functions over time – even if he just helped me promote learning resources in a slightly different way…

Faux ended up providing me with an ideal outlet to provoke more student activity – both by showing what was possible, but also by showing how things could be done better (by doing them badly). Nonetheless, it felt like an almost natural development that Faux would himself improve and actually replicate the desired learning process in doing so. A growing stream of videos from Faux helped me supplement my more ‘official’ teaching videos with on-the-spot productions that exemplified the ease and accessibility afforded by contemporary digital media culture (i.e. my smartphone).

Faux’s confidence grew to the point where he even started demanding to be included in what I called ‘Digital Media Snapshots‘, weekly videos designed to guide students through the various topics and assessments. As engagement with Faux grew, he took on a kind of ‘underdog’ persona that set student against teacher, reinforcing a key message that genuine learning environments don’t require the teacher to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Student agency is crucial, and while the entire Faux scenario was obviously fictional to all involved, making a clear-cut distinction between that and ‘reality’ would be simplistic. Given that some ‘real’ students took the time to parody Faux with selfies or video mashups, it doesn’t really matter where inspiration comes from – as long as it comes.

The antagonism between Faux-me and Teacher-me was exacerbated toward the end of the unit and eventually came to a head in the final Snapshot video, when my faux-sore throat led to the final symbolic gesture of the ‘students’ replacing – and being – the ‘teachers’…

Of course, I’m not advocating the essential erasure of the teacher’s presence here – that wouldn’t be a wise career move – but this and other teaching experiences have solidified in my mind the increasing need to reconceptualise the role of the teacher in a media-saturated 21st century. Teachers won’t disappear, but they do need to ‘come back’ in a different form (or different forms) to continue to engage students living in a time-poor and attention-poor society. What those forms are will depend on the subject area, student cohort, and broader context, but the main point is that those new forms are different.

As we approach the end of our story, it’s important to point out that Faux did realise the error of his ways and I finally got to poison a student.

But at the same time, Faux’s very last appearance in the unit below might well be a better note to end on. For me this convergence suggests the sentiment that a student needs a teacher might well need to be balanced with more emphasis on the teacher needing the student. My future teaching plans – which will no doubt develop as organically as before with the help of students and probably shouldn’t even be called ‘plans’ – will seek to put that age-old distinction of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ to the test even more. In the meantime, I’m glad that Faux will be coming along for the ride. He’ll no doubt be around next time. He actually has to re-enrol anyway.

He’s too busy being a pain in the arse to do any assignments!

Epilogue: I hope that ending didn’t make it sound like I had discovered the blurred boundaries of student and teacher on behalf of those enrolled in the unit. Through their own critical thinking and creative practice, they were able to discover that all by themselves…

Trollmania Brother. Trollmania indeed.

Giving Control and Taking Control: Student Agency and Education

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When I first started teaching in 2005, as a very shy and extremely nervous casual tutor at Deakin University’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus, I never thought about student agency. The undergraduate students I was ‘responsible for’ were always happy – even enthusiastic – to be what some judgementally (but probably accurately) describe as ‘spoon-fed’ the required information, the required way of doing things, the required means of completing the assessment tasks (and at a times, as a by-product of these things, the ‘required’ manner in which to think). The strongest card I had in my hand was that I would use my ‘Study Notes’ documents as a carrot to ensure – with generally positive success – ongoing tutorial attendance. I would only email these to students who attended; my taking of the roll consisted of me getting students to write their email addresses down in addition to their names, and I would forward them the document later that night.

I’m not criticising this practice; it can actually be a quite effective pull-factor in getting students to class – a worthy end in itself. Yet this strategy does have its limitations, and I saw it becoming less effective for me as time went on both as a casual tutor and later in my role as lecturer and Unit Chair, which necessitated me making all of my teaching materials available to all students without any attachment to attendance. Even before this, I asked many groups of students throughout my years as a sessional tutor about what happened to the Study Notes I sent them. I consistently found that very few recipients would ever actually open these documents that had laid bare the tutorial plan I’d used with its extra theoretical content, case studies, study questions, video links, assignment advice, and so on. But students still liked to have them; they even seemed to provide a sense of ‘security’. Not unlike my collecting of Ultra Fleer X-men cards in the 1990s, there seemed to be a strong desire to ‘collect the set’. At least my cards were read multiple times after they were sleeved; undoubtedly, few graduates would still have my Study Notes archived somewhere, no matter how hungrily they were craved for them at the time…

X-men Cards.jpg
Photograph by Adam Brown, 5 May 2016.

This is just one example of the (flawed) student reliance on the teacher that I find myself rallying against more and more as the years go by. I don’t say this to lay the sole blame on students either; educational systems have long been the bastion of rote learning and all its differently mutated descendants – and I was complicit in reinforcing the dominance of this species for long enough myself.

Now the empowerment of student agency is not only an internal mantra, but has seeped more and more explicitly and transparently into my pedagogical approach. Students shouldn’t rely on me because they can’t afford to rely on me – not only because I cannot possibly be an ‘expert’ in and on this immensely complex digital media world, but also because authentic learning about this world can’t be secured by being told about it by someone else. Any endeavour to ‘give’ people control always requires those same people to take control, and this goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of student learning by making, doing, sharing, and connecting. Employing gamification in my teaching across various media platforms by introducing a virtual currency or points system I called ‘Tiffits’ has certainly enhanced student learning in these ways this trimester, as I outlined in a recent video, but the actual outcomes comprise the all-important end game. The Tiffit tally is redundant once the trimester ends; it’s where that tally took people that I’m more interested in.

Students thrive when they take control; it’s after all what a university education – any education – is, or should be, designed to allow them to do. There are boundaries that this agency must take place within of course, but the notion that the teacher alone must set these boundaries may well threaten the whole undertaking from the beginning. Curriculum design, after all, can be as organic as student learning – and I’ve seen many examples of this kind of learning of late. I could point to numerous examples of student agency producing unexpected, productive, and highly valuable outcomes throughout the past few months alone, but its manifestation has been no clearer this week than in what has been hashtagged the #StudentOnlyChallenge. It would be wrong for me to describe what this is; instead, I should let the media (or rather the students) do it for me…

The ‘disappearance’ of the teacher in such circumstances is never literal, but backing away to figuratively – and sometimes actually – watch from a corner (or outside the classroom window as it may be) does have its merits. Every Twitter conversation, every exchange of ideas on SoundCloud, every interaction on YouTube that I’m not a part of reveals the power of student agency. And the creative, collaborative, and collegial environment that this engenders is where I get most of my ideas and energy from (the rest comes from Tiffany). So the last point to make is that students are not the only ones who benefit from their creative freedom; as can be seen in my two latest Digital Media Snapshot videos below, it also inspires their teachers…

I’ve been done with spoon-feeding for a while now. I’m still happy to feed students things – as long as they feed me in return. That’s how it should work. That’s the only way it can work.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Sexing Up Digital Media: From Online Dating to Sexting to Porn

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My recent conversation with Natalie Hendry (also podcasted) about anything and everything relating to romance and sex (that we could fit into twenty-five minutes!) is a must-see, as Natalie teases apart many of the complexities of – and shatters some commonplace myths about – the subject. You can also read a great blog written by Natalie that expands on some of her thoughts here. So, there’s lots to think about there alone. Maybe I’m coming across as over-(cyber)sexed, but there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about in relation to this topic and in addition to the videos below, I have one more issue for you to reflect on! [Okay, stop hyperventilating… check… continue blog post…]

One subject I didn’t touch on in any of the other material I’ve develope for this week is highlighted by the title of a 2009 science-fiction film starring Bruce Willis. Surrogates is an intriguing depiction of how sexuality might be (?) mediated in the near(ish) future – although as with all of these kinds of films, it’s actually more of a commentary on today’s digital media practices than some kind of prophecy. You can watch the trailer for Surrogates here, which will give you a fairly good idea of the film’s content. What seems to be the ‘message’ here? Does the film seem to put forward a dystopian perspective? If you’ve watched the film before, do you think the filmmakers effectively critique the sexualisation and eroticisation of the (particularly female) body in contemporary culture, which they seem to be trying to do, or is voyeuristic entertainment at the very core of the film’s attempt to engage audience members? You might also like to think about how similar films you have seen (such as Gamer, another 2009 production) generate meanings about sex and sexuality – and how digital media has changed things… allegedly.

Don’t worry, I’m done. I need a break from me now too, and am tempted to go play some Xbox – though I won’t be going near this one… ‘Thing’ from The Addams Family was always creepy enough…

Playful Publics: The Gamification of Everyday Life

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The majority of people reading this post – and there may be few enough for this reason – will be busily working on their university assessments (either for the unit I’m teaching or other units). With this in mind, I’ve made a personal pledge to keep this blog post to one paragraph in length. Hopefully the video below will provide a guilt-free study break for those who need to take a breather from working in the digital mines (Tiff’s in it, so it should be at least partially entertaining). In this video, I explore the growing phenomenon of gamification, reflect on why it’s come about, examine the ways in which it’s been applied for the first time to my teaching (and my students’ learning), and highlight the great case study of Habitica via a cameo by postgraduate student Sarah De Vries. I can’t wait to try this app out myself! I’ve also included below an extra conversation with Danielle Teychenne, mapping her movement from undergraduate student to industry practitioner, along with the great forms of gamified learning she’s working on and with. This video was actually our first collaboration in 2014, with our imminent web series Our Gamified World revealing just how far things can progress with a bit of networking and commitment within the short space of less than 12 months! Enjoy:)